Finding Your Classics
I first read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha in high school, after I noticed a good friend of mine reading it during Biology class. I enjoyed it, but I didn't give much more thought. Neat, a fable about Buddhism.
Last year I revisited it, and it shook me. Since then, I have re-read it perhaps four or five times. And each time I read it, I get something profoundly different from it. It is actively reshaping my perspective on life. Perhaps it is a revelation of old truths I once knew. This has happened to me enough times that it warranted some reflection. The following essay is an attempt to come to understand what this is. I reckon there is some important life-process afoot.
On High School
"For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions."
I first got into Radiohead as a high schooler, lying on the basement floor at a friend's house listening to OK Computer front to back.
That same year, I sat in our school library skipping Physics to read Guerrilla Warfare and The Art of War. I got into Rage Against the Machine and kept a poster on my wall of their iconic defiant red fist on black background. I obsessively memorized Tupac and Lupe Fiasco and Zack de la Rocha verses. My drawers overflowed with sheets of paper with scratched-out lyrical scribbles.
What had come over me? They say this is a phase, the naively mystical, attuned, brooding sensitivity of the teenager. This, too, shall pass as you learn (and become accustomed) to the ways of the world.
The impulse was genuine. It pulled me towards richer, if darker, images of humanity. You probably remember from your own childhood that first profound moment you realized that there's something eerie about life. I think everyone to some degree spends their life distracting themselves from ever revisiting that realization.
But moral fashionability soon consumed my genuine interest. It was cool as a teenager to have edgy interests. As the raw inputs of counter-culture entered me, they underwent some impure transformation within, and then they output the Fashionably Alternative.
So I entered college, and then the workforce, and I soon learned to ignore the questions that emerged from the discoveries above. My niche interests were great fodder for conversation ('You're so interesting!'), and nothing else. I often left these encounters with a feeling of shame and embarrassment.
The Contrived Roots of Your Soul
Today, we would call such a transformation being 'woke'. That is, I had awoken to the observation that the world is messy, complicated, and usually unfair and broken.
No matter what social justice warriors on college campuses will tell you, wokeness is not enough. Wokeness is, however, the roots of the soul. You may have spent most of your life selfishly indulging in whatever was immediately in front of your face. But something has changed, and there is no going back. There is a light, dim and unclear, now guiding your decisions.
Such a transformation is a remarkably important experience in a person's life. During this time, even if it is merely for contrived social reasons, an individual accumulates new landmarks in her mental map. She starts listening to different music, reading different books, hanging out with different people, playing different sports, generally skipping to a different beat.
She now has compiled a list of pointers to the voices, texts, sounds, and ideas that energize her to look harder at herself and the world she participates in. Maybe it's that Saul Alinsky paper, Sylvia Plath poem, or Stokely Carmichael speech. Maybe it's that Chrissy Teigen cookbook, Banksy graffiti, or Hasan Minhaj stand-up. These are her Classics, the horcruxes that will unbeknownst to her be strewn randomly across the spacetime journey of her life.
She then will embark on a series of well-intentioned missteps. She'll try and change the world before she can reliably make her own bed every morning. She'll become frustrated by the slow pace of change. She'll grow jaded by her own foolishness about how things work. She'll sell out to the machine and find comfort in status, salary, and an apartment.
But her Classics will remain.
The Endless Rediscovery of Your Classics
What you seek is seeking you.
Classics form a constellation of untapped meaning for a person. They are containers of your soul -- external artifacts for things you found vitally important. They help us figure out how to proceed and endure despite the unflinching brutality of existence.
It behooves us to become intimately familiar with what these Classics are, and then to observe them earnestly.